The bare essentials of ‘Don Giovanni’

The bare essentials of  ‘Don Giovanni’

MATTHEW WILD, director of Cape Town Opera’s ‘Don Giovanni’, weighs in with his thoughts on this controversial opera and the challenges inherent in staging it.

More ink has been spilled in the quest to come to grips with ‘Don Giovanni’ (the work, and its eponymous nobleman) than perhaps any other opera. Its pedigree as a supreme musical masterpiece has seldom been questioned, but centuries of analysis and criticism have tended to shed more light on the analysts than on the work itself.

Multiple aspects of the opera’s make-up remain enigmatic: the unsettling combination of serious and comic elements, the sudden intrusion of the supernatural, the tantalizing holes and absences in the narrative.
What precisely happened between Anna and Giovanni before the curtain rises, and how accurate is Anna’s account of these events towards the end of Act 1? How are we to understand the work’s confusing timeline? What motivates Giovanni’s insatiable appetite for adding notches to his belt? And what precisely makes him so darned attractive to just about everyone who crosses his path?

The more we seek 20-century theatrical realism in ‘Don Giovanni’, and the more we attempt to place its characters on the psychoanalysts couch, the further we travel from the theatrical roots of the myth.

A popular street theatre entertainment, the Don Juan legend was a mainstay of travelling puppet shows long before it received its first recorded written adaptation in approximately 1630, namely Tirso de Molina’s ‘El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra’ (‘The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest’). We may imagine that viewers of these puppet plays would have been blissfully free of our 20th century obsessions with character development, a watertight narrative, tonal continuity, realistic lighting and representational scenery. Rather, they would have looked for a series of dramatic, funny, surprising, thrilling interactions between strongly drawn characters – types, rather than finely rounded individuals.

Stripped down to a series of interactions, the story of ‘Don Giovanni’ becomes an alarming study in the human tendency to obsess with the unattainable, to prefer romantic mirages to facing the truth, to become infatuated with those who ignore you, avoid you or treat you badly.

Faced with a strictly limited budget, and a young, energetic, lithe cast, we decided to take this stripping down process to a radical extreme. Gone are any indicators of time and place, all sense of scenic representation, all props except those with clearly symbolic meaning. Costume is used to signify the essentials of the story (primarily the class structure), while the many disguises required by the plot are signified only by masks, highlighting the absurdity of the cases of mistaken identity.

All the mechanics of the theatre are revealed, and all attempts at realism abandoned. Against this background, we hope that concentration will be focused entirely on the detailed interaction of a cast of strongly delineated characters, on muscular treatment of da Ponte’s great text, and on a highly detailed account of Mozart’s astounding score.

* ‘Don Giovanni’ is showing at The Baxter Theatre from August 20 to 24.
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